Remember “norms”? Throughout the Trump presidency, this was one of the watchwords of the Washington establishment. It was invoked in issues small (a vulgar tweet about a journalist) and large (a months-long campaign to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election). However, as congressional Democrats consider the nuclear option against the filibuster, institutional Washington has fallen oddly silent about the importance of norms.
Yes, it’s time for yet another exchange about the filibuster, a kind of Groundhog Day for the battle over the institutional norms of American democracy. A few Democratic stalwarts — principally Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), though one suspects that they have some quiet sympathizers — have stood against the coordinated effort to blow up the rules of the Senate. Congress is returning after its Memorial Day holiday, and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer as well as progressive activist groups have indicated that they hope to mount a sustained campaign against the filibuster in June.
Instead of trying to check political overreach, the Washington press corps has tried to drum up a battle over the filibuster. Despite being crystal-clear that he will not support the nuclear option, Joe Manchin is asked daily whether he will reverse his position. The senior senator from West Virginia has found more ways to say no than there are states in the union, but reporters still pepper him about the filibuster. Curiously, few pro-nuke Democrats have been pushed on why they are abandoning their 2017 pledge to protect the filibuster — to explain how the filibuster went from being a key part of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to an anti-democratic monstrosity.
The fact that many members of the Washington establishment have been so sympathetic to a relentless campaign to nuke the filibuster might tell us something about how the political establishment itself has changed in recent decades.
Make no mistake: Nuking the filibuster would unleash a full-scale barrage on institutional norms (as I have written about almost too many times). Using the nuclear option attacks the very rules that govern the Senate as an institution; 51 votes can say that the rules (which say you can’t change the rules with 51 votes) don’t matter. Until 2020 or so, the filibuster was often treated as an important guardrail for American constitutional democracy. Prominent Democrats, such as Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, certainly thought so, as did many Republicans. In 2018’s How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warned that “the elimination of the filibuster and other rules that protect Senate minorities” would be part of a “nightmare scenario” for democratic deterioration in the United States. That same year, Dick Durbin said that eliminating the filibuster “would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised.”
Though the filibuster has long had critics, even many of its foes thought that the nuclear option was a dangerous idea. When Republicans contemplated using the nuclear option on judicial nominations in 2005, Brookings Institution scholars (and filibuster opponents) Sarah Binder and Steven Smith said that the “right move for the Senate is to change Rule 22 [which would require a supermajority to impose cloture on a rules change] rather than undermining the filibuster by a raw power move [i.e., the nuclear option].”
Gutting the Senate rules would be one of the most consequential structural changes in Washington in living memory. The institutional character of the Senate is built around those rules and their incentives, which affect everything from the power of individual senators to the composition of Senate committees to the position of the majority leader to the influence of the president. The nuclear option is a transformative case of constitutional hardball. Nuking the filibuster for nominations has sharpened polarization in the Senate and encouraged more envelope-pushing behavior from both majorities and minorities. Increasing the nuclear yield would almost certainly worsen that dynamic.
So why is institutional Washington so indifferent to these normative dangers?
Intellectual arguments can certainly be made against the filibuster. Washington has grown more dysfunctional in recent years, and the filibuster has often blocked legislation, though it has not been as paralyzing as some of its critics charge. Activists might consider some policy priorities so important that their passage should outweigh the institution of the Senate. The preference of recent majority leaders to work outside regular order and to have silent filibusters has often made the filibuster a de facto 60-vote requirement. The federal government already has many veto points, so removing one might make the legislative branch more dynamic.
Whether or not these arguments are persuasive (and I personally find them less than dispositive), the fact that a supposedly “norm”-obsessed Washington would shrug its shoulders at blowing up the institution of the Senate might also reveal something about the evolving character of the American political establishment. As recent years have shown, politics is often as much about group affinity and generalized worldviews as it is about abstract arguments, and social conditions can influence how certain ideas will be received.
Washington has largely been insulated from the negative consequences of the disruption of the past 20 years. For many parts of the country, recent decades have been a time of economic stagnation and social frustration. Not so in the glittering Beltway, where luxury condos and six-figure jobs have proliferated. In a kind of reverse reckoning, many of the debacles suffered by the country as a whole have ended up enriching D.C. and its environs. For instance, No Child Left Behind poured a cascade of testing-centric mandates upon local school districts — and millions of dollars into the pockets of consultants and testing companies. The Great Recession was a great time for the lobbying and influencer classes. D.C. is disproportionately populated by the scions of trust funds and meritocratic winners, who have benefited from the financialization and bureaucratization of the American economy. For this demographic slice, “move fast and break things” has paid off handsomely, so why not apply it to American government? Exacerbating this tendency is the Beltway’s penchant for short-termism, with the news cycle as the farthest horizon. “Winning the day” is very different from long-term statesmanship.
Part of this appetite for disruption is probably also a consequence of partisan changes. During the Bush and Obama presidencies, the Beltway was trending Democratic, and during the Trump years, many of the communities ringing the capital have also rushed in a Democratic direction. Mitt Romney got almost half of the vote in Loudoun County, Va., in 2012; by 2020, Donald Trump got only about a third. D.C.’s election results reflect its status as a one-party jurisdiction. Donald Trump won only 5 percent in 2020 — which was better than the 4 percent he received in 2016. Compounding this trend, many of the leading media figures, political hands, and think-tankers who were associated with the Right in 2015 are deeply opposed to Donald Trump and, in some cases, skeptical of the contemporary Republican Party as a whole. The destruction of ad-supported local newsrooms and reporting staffs has helped push the national press corps toward a kind of advocacy journalism that appeals to a constant sense of panic in order to generate clicks, shares, and cable-news hits.
This partisan shift has affected the culture of Washington. If everyone you know, work with, or live alongside thinks that Trump and the Republican Party are existential threats to American life, then blowing up any institution to try to stop the GOP seems reasonable. The fact that the Trump presidency ended with a mob storming the Capitol no doubt reinforces that perception. (Of course, it’s not clear that the long-term effects of eliminating the filibuster would necessarily harm the partisan interests of Republicans. Democrats have gotten to 60 votes in the Senate much more easily than Republicans have.) This partisan lean has also created a reality-distorting bubble in the Beltway. Because Republicans have seen their fortunes plummet in this region, many Washington analyses frame the Republican Party as being on the verge of electoral extinction, when in fact the party was only barely shut out of power in 2020 and nationally faced nothing like the political repudiation of 2008.
Part of this is a change in norms within the American elite. The old establishment often saw itself as safeguarding institutions and doubting ideological transformation. Thus, it opposed both Goldwater and McGovern. After the Great Depression and two world wars, the preservation of order and the sublimation of conflict seemed to have certain advantages. In part because of the influence of Baby Boomer politics, today’s establishment is much more comfortable with the concept of ideological revolution. Compounding this belief in strident ideology, meritocrats have passive-aggressively battled for honors since they were in elementary school, so vicious political warfare in adulthood also appears normal. From this perspective, the American constitutional tradition of divided power at the federal level seems clunky — far better to have a parliamentary model in which the winning faction gets a free hand to do what it wants. This view of politics has parallels with the winner-take-all approach that characterizes high neoliberal economics: unimaginable concentrated power for the winners and scraps for everyone else.
However, the winner-take-all economy has not led to dynamic growth, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that a parliamentary mode of politics is a poor fit for the U.S. Constitution. Many in Washington view Donald Trump as a fundamental aberration, but his presidency could in some ways be seen as bringing to the Beltway a taste of the disruption experienced by the country as a whole since 2000. And there’s an irony worthy of Orwell in nuking the filibuster to resist Trump: Trump himself endorsed nuking the filibuster, and detonating the nuclear option would in many ways be the triumph of a Trumpist view of politics as endless existential conflict. It is not too late for the Beltway to reconsider whether to unleash the whirlwind of polarization and institutional destruction on American politics.